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What are Stimulants?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Stimulants are chemicals that increase activity in the central and peripheral nervous systems, intensifying a person's mental or physical state. Individuals who use stimulants usually experience an increase in alertness, productivity, and endurance when performing tasks. There are many different types of stimulants, which are commonly used in medications, consumer products and drinks, and illicit drugs. Stimulating effects can be derived from nicotine, caffeine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and other potentially dangerous drugs. Research shows that there is a significant risk of developing psychological and physiological addiction to stimulants, even with very limited exposure.

Chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters, including dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, are essential to the release of hormones and the body's response to pain and pleasure. Neurotransmitters are regularly released in response to a stimulus, and reabsorbed to maintain a sufficient supply. When a person takes a stimulant, however, large amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine are released and prevented from being reabsorbed, causing a temporary boost in pleasure and a drop in pain. In time, however, the brain's supply of neurotransmitters becomes depleted, leading to intense feelings of withdrawal, drowsiness, and fatigue.

The most common and most socially acceptable stimulant is caffeine, which is found in many types of sodas, coffee, juices, energy drinks, and chocolate. Like other stimulants, caffeine temporarily enhances dopamine and norepinephrine levels, leading to feelings of alertness and wakefulness, but also resulting in a dangerous increase heart rate and anxiety. Nicotine, which is usually derived from cigarettes and chewing tobacco, produces similar short-term effects. Diet pills and over-the-counter energy boosters stimulate the mind and the body's metabolism, reducing the urge to consume food and increasing endurance. Certain prescription drugs, including medications for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and asthma, are also considered stimulants.

Many different illegal drugs are classified as stimulants, including cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine. Such highly addictive drugs cause feelings of euphoria, a reduction in the body's ability to sense pain, significant increases in energy and alertness, and a loss of appetite. Frequent use of these drugs quickly leads to dependence in most people. An individual usually builds a tolerance to stimulants over time, meaning that he or she needs more and more of a drug to achieve the desired effects, greatly increasing the risk of an overdose and serious health consequences. In addition, most drug users experience severe physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when drugs are not available.

An individual whose daily life has become disrupted because of a stimulant addiction can receive help by seeking the guidance of a physician or a mental health professional. A doctor or psychologist may recommend detoxification, inpatient substance abuse rehabilitation, support groups, or regular sessions with a counselor to help a person overcome his or her addiction. By abstaining from using chemicals and developing healthy habits, many people are able to recover from their addictions and return to normal life.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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